A minister at the Home Office launched an unprecedented
attack yesterday on the chairman of the commission for racial
equality for his criticism of government plans to place
asylum seekers in accommodation centres.
Gurbux Singh, the CRE's chairman, had called for the government
to do more to make the case for economic migration into
Britain in a speech yesterday. He had urged the government
to intensify its efforts to .
Mr Singh also said government plans to improve social cohesion
after last year's riots in three northern towns had neglected
Lord Rooker, the minister for citizenship and immigration,
called Mr Singh's comments "ill informed".
The slapdown of the head of the government's race watchdog
was the first public criticism by a minister of a chairman
of the CRE since Labour came to power.
In a speech marking the CRE's 25th anniversary, Mr Singh
attacked the government's plans, unveiled this week, for
rural accommodation centres for asylum seekers. "If
we want a cohesive and well integrated society, is this
really the best way to prepare new arrivals and the host
community for an integrated Britain?" he asked.
Mr Singh said that in the past immigration had benefited
Britain, and more was needed. "Why do people see this
as a threat? I believe we fail to give positive messages.
We fail to challenge negative headlines, because we areafraid
to upset middle England. This cannot be acceptable."Lord
Rooker hit back: "I am very disappointed by these ill
informed comments. Accommodation centres are designed to
speed up the system of dealing with asylum applications."
The minister defended the government on making a case for
increased economic migration. "We have spent a great
deal of time promoting the benefits of managed economic
migration. Social cohesion depends on developing this migration,
so that people can see and feel its benefits."
He added: "Rather than attack our policies, Gurbux
should recognise that they are about building trust in the
system that will strengthen social cohesion and race relations."
In the speech Mr Singh signalled a radical policy shift
and vowed to tackle the repeated "vilification"
of asylum seekers - a move that risked putting the CRE on
a collision course with the government.
Mr Singh said his publicly funded body would stand up to
the small-mindedness of middle England.
The watchdog has no formal powers over asylum, and has
avoided the debate because of the issues raising acute political
sensitivity. But insiders at CRE said they found the debate
on asylum so fierce and negative that it was destabalising
race relations generally.
Sources said the decision would result in behind-the-scenes
efforts by the CRE to persuade the government to moderate
the vehemence of its language on asylum seekers and to emphasise
the benefits of immigration. It would also mean a readiness
to criticise ministers publicly - as seen in Mr Singh's
condemnation of the home secretary's claim that services
were being "swamped" by asylum seekers.
In a speech billed as refreshing thinking on race, Mr Singh
pointed to a Mori opinion poll that found widespread negative
perceptions of asylum and immigration: "This is indicative
of a wider problem in British society of how immigration
and asylum is packaged for the public. I think we have a
fundamental problem of explanation and presentation."
He said that he accepted there were economic migrants trying
falsely to claim asylum. He also said the arrival of asylum
seekers posed challenges to overstretched public services
and poor communities.
He added: "But surely this cannot justify the vilification
of asylum seekers in public and popular debate. We require
a fundamental shift on the nature of the debate on asylum,
and we need it now."
He called for social cohesion, saying "recent concern
with cohesion in Britain appeared to neglect equality".